Last week, I had intended for this post to cover some of the game’s side content. I’ve since changed my mind – some of topics I wanted to discuss about that I’ve decided to put on hold until after I covered the main Velen quests.
The “Bloody Baron” sequence of events includes the multi-step quests “Family Matters” and “Ladies of the Wood,” which together see Geralt piece together the story of how exactly local warlord Phillip Strenger’s family was torn to pieces and came to various kinds of tragedy. It got oodles of acclaim – it won a Golden Joystick award for “Best Gaming Moment,” and both PC Gamer and Kotaku did write-ups on how it was made.
I’m of several different minds about this whole sequence. I’ve praised the Witcher games in the past for being “realistic” (in the literary sense of the word, not the literal sense), and this video covers the core of that argument if you want to know it in more detail. The Bloody Baron story meets many of my own informal criteria for realism: a believable messiness, an emphasis on the personal, events that are relatively small in scale in comparison to their surroundings, and characters who at least occasionally confound our dramatic expectations. And, broadly speaking, I like literary realism.
So I was surprised to find myself uneasy with this quest. It’s my personal – though relatively casual – belief that every good story has a moral. In some cases the moral is up-front and obvious, like with an Aesop’s fable, and in some cases the moral is complex and squirrelly enough that it defies conventional methods of explanation and can only be glimpsed through fiction. Put another way, even in literary realism, which tends to resist pat value judgments, stories are trying to say something about the world. And my personal reading of what the Bloody Baron sequence is trying to say is that the behavior of the titular character is at least partially excusable, and that perhaps the Baron shouldn’t be considered a villain at all.
Let’s look at that behavior. Our first direct contact with the Baron’s existence is at the inn we’re sent to to locate the Emperor’s spy. The village surrounding the inn is being terrorized by the Baron’s men, to the point where parents are disguising their daughters as boys in hopes of sparing them from being raped. Geralt has an encounter with them in the inn itself, and you can either fight them or talk them down.In a bit of reactivity I didn’t know the game had until recently, fighting them gets you banned from the Baron’s fort at Crow’s Perch, and you have to sneak in through a cave that leads to the bottom of the fort’s well.
Now I don’t necessarily mean to say that a commander bears full culpability far all the actions of his men in a situation like this, but surely he bears some. It’s not as though the Baron thinks the soldiers under his command are angels. In his first conversation with Geralt he says that they’re “good at pulling up the floorboards to find a peasant’s last sack of grain,”Or something like that, those may not be his exact words. so he’s apparently aware that at the very least his men are taking food from desperate people by force.
If I had to guess the intentions of the writers, I would guess that they deliberately built up a fearsome and brutal reputation in the mind of the player, only to subvert it once Geralt meets its owner. Phillip Strenger, aka the “Bloody Baron,” is in fact an affable and friendly person, even endearing, in a sort of sweaty, booze-soaked way. He knows that we’re looking for Ciri, and we learn that Ciri was a guest at Crow’s Perch for a time, and was treated with genuine hospitality.
He tells the story of how exactly she came to be there, leading to another one of the game’s vignettes where she becomes the player character. Ciri finds herself in a forest (for reasons unknown to the player at this point) where she rescues a child from wolves before using Witcher techniques to dispatch a werewolf, at which point a man she rescued brings her to the Baron.
Strenger, however, is not willing to share the entire story until Geralt helps him with a problem: his wife and daughter have been kidnapped. By this point the player has probably already seen the “have you seen this person” posters for them around various villages in the region, including the town at the base of Crow’s Perch. Geralt uses his Witcher senses to investigate the rooms they disappeared from, and finds a clue in the shape of a protective medallion, leading him to investigate the local Pellar.
(I like it when I learn things from games. A “pellar” is the name of a certain brand of fortune teller and practitioner of folk magic, broadly in the pagan tradition. If you’re not afraid of the wikipedia rabbit hole, here’s the article on “Cunning Folk in Britain.” I assume there must have been a comparable tradition in Poland. At some point during this series I’m going to comment/speculate on the game’s translation and how strong – in my opinion, at least – it is.)
From the Pellar’s information the player can gradually, over many steps in the questline, reconstruct what happened. First, you learn what you probably already suspected by this point: the Baron’s wife (Anna) and daughter (Tamara), weren’t “kidnapped” at all, but fled from the physically abusive Strenger. Before they fled, Anna learned she was pregnant. Not wanting to have another of the Baron’s children, she went to the local hideous, unsettling coven of witches, the Crones of Crookback Bog (we’ll cover them in more detail in future entries).
The Crones offered Anna a deal: they’ll induce a miscarriage in return for her service. I thought this plot point was a bit forced – was “pledge service to supernatural beings” really the best abortion option available to her? The western tradition records abortofacient herbs and other techniques going all the way back to ancient Greece. Anna is a noblewoman, and not without resources, in a setting with both alchemy and magic. But whatever, I guess I’ll go with it.
Then Anna went to the Pellar to get a medallion to protect her from the Crones. During the struggle with the drunken Strenger on the night of their escape, she lost the medallion, and a Fiend (a beast controlled by the Crones) abducted her and carried her into the bog to fulfill the terms of her agreement. At some point, her mind snaps (the game is a little vague on this), and Geralt meets her at the orphanage there, where he knows her only as “Gran,” caretaker of the orphans.
(Oh yeah, and at one point during all of this you have to retrieve the Pellar’s goat, which has wandered off to eat strawberries.)
You might have noticed that this story is a little convoluted. It doesn’t help that, much like the Dandelion/Ciri backstory in Novigrad, the player only learns bits of it at a time, and out of order to boot. In fact, you never even get to hear Anna’s side of the story, since by the time you meet her she’s taken on her “Gran” persona.
After Anna and Tamara fled, the Baron buried the miscarried fetus without naming it, causing it to turn into a super creepy monster called a “botchling.” At this point Geralt has the option of killing it, but the better option is to perform a ritual where Strenger gives it a name and accepts it as his own, perhaps earning a scrap of redemption along the way.
So Anna, the victim of abuseAnd possibly the perpetrator, if you believe the Baron, which I’m not entirely sure I do., gets a fragmented, confusing story relayed through hearsay. The Baron, by contrast, gets a dramatic story, a distinct and unique personality, and several scenes where he gets to demonstrate regret for his actions.
To the game’s credit, said story, personality, and scenes are well executed. The English voice actorA man by the name of James Clyde, just another of the UK’s bottomless reserve of talented actors you’ve never heard of. does an excellent job, his dialogue is well written, and the cutscenes are well directed (to the extent that word applies to a game). But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me that the developers went out of their way to humanize the Bloody Baron, who by merits is an abuser and a brutal warlord, a monster of a person, but only gives us the barest glimpse of his primary victim.
This brings us back to the idea of stories having morals. In a simple fable, the moral is determined by the author. But in more complex works of fiction, and even more so in interactive fiction (like games), ownership of the moral belongs partly to the audience. The Kotaku article on this quest (which I also linked above) had a section which illuminated this concept in action:
My version of the quest ended basically in tragedy. The wife, seeking independence, appeared cursed to work for the ladies of the wood, the hideous Crones. The daughter, thoroughly disgusted, rejects the Baron’s desire for a relationship. Having lost everything, the Baron hung himself outside of his home. But Geralt had the information he needed, so he went on his way.
Though shocked at the sight of the Baron—I spent all this time on this quest, only to have everything turn to shit?!—I wasn’t particularly upset, either. In my mind, the Baron wasn’t deserving of his family’s forgiveness.
"This is your interpretation of what happened," said Sasko. "Another person may have described this situation in the following way: ‘I saved the Baron’s wife from death and the Baron couldn’t take it. He’s not going to harm anyone any more. This family was broken and destroyed long before this quest even happened and there was nothing that could be done to undo such destruction.’"
Based on what CD Projekt RED has seen, player reactions ran the gamut.
"For me this story is very personal," said Sasko. "I was born in a poor village in the Polish mountains and in my childhood I saw families broken by alcohol and violence. Being a child, I saw parents hitting kids and fighting with each other, while at the same time being in love and doing everything for their families. After the game was released, I watched the playthroughs, read forums and e-mails and observed what I expected to see: players reacted very differently, depending on their background. People who forgave the Baron were not the minority, which proved for me that giving this choice to the players was the right thing to do.
In some stories, the authors know the moral before they start, and in some, the creative act is an attempt to find it. Stories of the second type are the ones that really stick with me.
There’s no real good outcome to the quest as far as the Strengers are concerned. The Baron either hangs himself, or takes his mentally broken wife to a “healer” in the mountains, which we no have particular reason to think will work. Either way, Crow’s Perch is taken over by the Baron’s second-in-command (a nameless Sergeant), who seems inclined to let his men indulge in all their worst impulses, so if anything the life of the average Velenite just gets worse.
I couldn’t personally bring myself to think well of Phillip Strenger. I believe the character’s remorse was genuine, but for abusers “genuine” doesn’t necessarily mean “permanent,” and neither is it necessarily useful for their victims. I wish we could’ve seen more of Anna’s side of the story. We do see more of Tamara’s side of the story (there’s an optional side objective where you can learn where her life has gone she left), which is good, but still (in my opinion) not enough.
So that’s the Bloody Baron. Despite all the accolades it received, I don’t think it was the best quest in the game. However, the things it did well, it did very well, and I think much of its quality probably grew out of the personal connection its creator had for the subject. I hope at least some other developers have taken a lesson from its success: don’t be afraid to make things messy and personal, and don’t feel like you have to know exactly what you’re trying to say with every story you write. Drawing the moral out of a complex story is at least partly the prerogative of the audience.
Next week, we stay in Velen and cover the crones and Keira Metz’s quests. See you then!
 In a bit of reactivity I didn’t know the game had until recently, fighting them gets you banned from the Baron’s fort at Crow’s Perch, and you have to sneak in through a cave that leads to the bottom of the fort’s well.
 Or something like that, those may not be his exact words.
 And possibly the perpetrator, if you believe the Baron, which I’m not entirely sure I do.
 A man by the name of James Clyde, just another of the UK’s bottomless reserve of talented actors you’ve never heard of.
Marvel's Civil War
Team Cap or Team Iron Man? More importantly, what basis would you use for making that decision?
DM of the Rings
Both a celebration and an evisceration of tabletop roleplaying games, by twisting the Lord of the Rings films into a D&D game.
Diablo III Retrospective
We were so upset by the server problems and real money auction that we overlooked just how terrible everything else is.
Quakecon Keynote 2013 Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
What is Vulkan?
There's a new graphics API in town. What does that mean, and why do we need it?